Hard Lessons

by Christopher Hughes



I sat at the side of the room and watched in rapt fascination as Lurene held forth her hands. The journal in front of her--my first volume of research, a thick heavy tome--slowly lifted itself from the desk and hovered a solid foot over its surface. With her left hand, she held the spell of telekinesis while adding components to it with her right. Soon the inkwell, my burin and the candlestick floated, with not a tremor among them. Opening my inner eyes, I saw the faint tendrils of energy that surrounded each of the items and held them fast, directed outwards from the fingertips of her left hand, surrounding each in their turn.

I beamed inside, knowing how difficult extending such control was over more than a single object at a time. She turned to face me and flashed a pert smile, as if to say, "See what a quick study I am?" Now for a true test. I slowly drew a knife from my robes and balanced it in my paw, then hefted it once for good measure and took its tip between the pads of my thumb and forefinger. I wished only to startle her, not to threaten her, so I aimed for the wax candle held aloft before her.

With one flick of my wrist, certainly far clumsier than any knife Julian might throw but with ever-improving aim, I launched the dagger towards the candle and shouted a hairsbreadth later, "Stop it!"

Lurene's face turned to see the candleflame glint off the steel of the fast-approaching blade and she raised her right hand as if to catch it. With inner sight, I saw a tendril of force snake out from her hand and ensnare the dagger two inches shy of the candle. She twisted her wrist around, rotating the tip of the blade to point back at me. Her silvery eyes twinkled in the firelight. "And what was the point?"

I pointed to the desk with a claw. "That, mayhap?"

She looked back at the desk. In her haste to catch the dagger, she had lost concentration on the remainder of the components. The tome, burin, inkwell and candlestick all lay scattered across the desk and a thin pool of greasy black was slowly growing where the ink was seeping from its container.

"Crumbs!" Lurene cried and jolted back from her seat, snatching for a blotter to stop the inkstain before it spread. She frantically wiped at the black pool, then spent a few moments trying to shuffle papers and scrolls out of harm's way before returning to the spreading stain.

I smiled gently and raised a paw, extending a thin tendril of control to upright the inkwell. Once it sat neatly on its base again, I extended my focus, forming the image of a bowl in my mind. Sliding it beneath the pool of ink, I carefully lifted the slick puddle from the desk, leaving only a faint mark on the dense wood as testament to its presence. Then, from bowl to funnel, I returned the fluid to the well and then replaced the cap. Throughout the spell, Lurene sat watching in fascination. When the display was done, she turned to me and frowned. "I could have cleaned that, had you given me the time," she said with mild frustration in her voice.

I released the spell and took hold of the wheels of my chair, then slowly rolled myself to the desk. "An' in that time, how much of the ink would've been lost? I don't think ye understand how much that costs, lass," I said with as much humor as I could muster.

After the week during which Lurene had come to live at the Keep as my ward, I spent two months in Coe's capable paws fighting to regain some control over my legs, but to no avail. Walking remained beyond my capacity; the damage to my back was too severe. For a time, I feared that Lurene might be stuck tending on me in the infirmary or my room night and day.

To that end, the ingenuity of my fellow Keepers proved invaluable. Bryan saw my inability to walk as a challenge, and took it upon himself to design a mobile chair-with-wheels in which I could propel myself. However, quickly it became obvious that while the idea was well-intended, the construction would be harder. Wooden chairs would not hold my weight, but stone or steel would prove too heavy for me to move easily. Hardwood such as oak might have worked, but the cost of importing it was prohibitive. Then, enter Pascal. With her talents, she created a solution which would give the local soft aspen in abundance at the Keep the durability and strength of cold-forged iron while only slightly increasing its weight. With Pascal's ironwood and Bryan's plans, Michael required only an afternoon to carve my horseless chariot, as he dubbed it. And again, I could roam the halls of the Keep under my own power. My back still ached and I still fought for control of my bodily functions at times, but they were struggles with which I could live.

Lurene sat down opposite me at the table, one finger rubbing the fresh stain on the desk as if she could erase it. "Why did you do that?" she asked heavily, lifting the dagger she had let drop and manoeuvring it back to within my reach.

I plucked the blade out of the air and returned it to its sheath. "An easy answer," I sighed. "An' an unpleasant one. The Keep lacks for mages right now. With Posti gone and me unable t' walk, right now there aren't many of us who could go on patrol. Magus is too valuable to let out of the keep, Electra spends half her time at Magdalene Island, Sean's not a mage in his own right, and sending Cerulean or Saroth would have half the Giantdowns aware of their presence in hours with all the innate magic locked within them. That leaves ye and Kindle as our only field mages. Half a dozen more beyond the two of ye have some talents, but ye're the only ones who've any sort of formal training. As much as I wish I could protect ye from the field, Thomas' orders are clear: every able body aids in defense of the keep, an' that includes the patrols. If yer holdin' a wall up an' some lutin were to slip behind the lines and throw a dagger at ye, ye'd have to be able t' stop it wi'out losing everything else."

As I spoke, I watched her expression change from curiosity to consternation. "So... how long before I'm sent on patrol?" she asked in a small voice.

I rolled my shoulders in a shrug. "As my assistant, they might decide not t' send ye out at all. Or they could summon ye at first light and have ye on yer way to the Giantdowns by first bell. I can speak with Po--" I caught myself and sighed. "With Thomas... ashes!" I swore and wheeled back from the table. I sat quiet for all of a few seconds before bringing one fist down on the hardwood armrest with a crack. "I can't even pace in this thing!" My throat knotted and I coughed, sending a spasm of pain through my back that had me breathing raggedly, fighting for control. I squinted my eyes against the sensation and ignored the tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. My other paw locked onto the armrest and squeezed it tightly, my knuckles white through the brown-grey fur.

I heard Lurene's chair scrape against the stone floor and then the soft pattings of her feet. Then a slim hand gently stroked the fur between my ears and over my neck. She shushed me quietly and knelt to the side of my chair. "Christopher..." She seemed at a loss, just as I did.

"Nay, lass. 'Tis alright." I put a paw around her and coaxed her to move around and sit on my lap. I couldn't feel her weight on my leg, but where she leaned against my chest more than compensated. She put an arm around my shoulder and I held her waist. "I'm sorry," I said softly after a few moments. "'Tisn't yer fault."

She rested her head on my shoulder, face half-sunk into the thick fur of my neck. A small patch of skin beneath her lower cheek was wet. "It is. Had I simply gone back--"

"Nay. Stop there." I held her. "We've covered this afore. Had ye gone back, I would likely be an unthinking animal again. An' ye'd most likely be dead or well on the road to being yer father."

"I know. I just wish I could have done more." She shivered once and snuggled in closer to my fur.

"Ye did all ye could. An' for what ye did, I'm proud of ye." I hugged her gently and closed my eyes. She sighed once and held onto me. Within a few moments, she began to snore lightly.

For how long we sat there together only half-awake, I was unsure, but when a knock at the door startled me back to awareness, the sun was dipping below the horizon. After steadying Lurene in my lap, I wheeled over to the door and opened it. On the other side was Magus, dressed in a simple dark cloak and carrying a staff. Floating two paces behind him were the chessboard and the box of chessmen from his quarters. A faint smile crossed his muzzle. "'Tis Tuesday, in case you'd forgotten."

"Ashes, the game!" I swore. "My apologies, Magus. Lurene's lesson ran overlong and then we fell t' talking." I pulled back from the door and waved him inside. "Have ye time t' stay for a few rounds?"

He nodded and entered, the chessboard floating over to the desk. Seemingly of its own accord, the box opened and the various pieces began arranging themselves. I shook Lurene gently and she started, leaning back and rubbing at her eyes. "Lurene, Magus is here," I said gently.

"Ah? Oh!" She brightened quickly and practically leaped from my lap to curtsey to the fennec. "My apologies, Magus."

Magus' eyes sparkled with amusement but his face never waivered from the slight smile he perpetually wore. He bowed to my ward in response. "Quite alright."

I stretched and pulled myself to the table, then winced as a second spasm ran through my back. Lurene hastily stepped over to my bedside table and retrieved a small jar. When she removed the lid, a pungent odor began to drift through the room. Magus wiped at his eyes, tearing from the smell. "What is that?" he coughed.

"It's a salve for pain and swelling," Lurene explained; I was breathing through my muzzle to cut back on the fumes I had to inhale. "Pascal crafted it; it relieves some of his symptoms, though they never really go away." She took a thick glob of it onto her fingers and began rubbing through the fur above my scar and into my skin. A strange soothing chill began to spread through my back, though quite distinct from the numbness of my legs. I breathed a small sigh of relief as the pain subsided.

When she was finished, Magus stepped over and looked at my back. "Do you mind if I see the damage?"

I shrugged and leaned forward as much as I could without causing another spasm. Just above my tail, a scar covered the width of my back and slightly up onto my sides. Skin had roughly regrown to cover the wound, but it was hairless and pale. Beneath, muscles had healed as best as they could, but no amount of Coe's stitchwork or positioning could repair the damage to the bones beneath. The fox said nothing as he looked, but I imagined that I could feel a pressure against the scar as his clawtips traced its length. Finally he stepped back and took a seat at the table opposite me, his face unreadable.

I leaned back in my chair and shifted my bulk into a more comfortable position. "What d'ye think?"

Rather than answer my question, he asked turned to Lurene. "Would I be imposing if I asked you to fetch me an ale?"

Lurene glanced at me and I nodded. "Aye, make that two. There's coinage in my pouch hanging on the hook. An' something for yerself as well; we've missed evens again, I fear."

She hurried to the wall and retrieved the pouch from its place on the wall, then turned to Magus and curtsied again. "Always a pleasure, Magus." Then she slipped out of the room, pulling the door closed behind her.

For a moment or two, I smiled after her at the closed door, then wheeled myself to the table where the chessmen stood ready. Magus pulled one of the two regular chairs opposite me and took his seat, leaning his staff against the wall. A pawn of each colour floated free of the chessboard and drifted towards him. He took them into his paws and shook them together, then separated his paws and held them out to me. "Choose." His expression never waivered.

"Left."

He opened his left paw, showing the white pawn. He tossed it back to me and set down its black counterpart in its square. "You move first, I believe."

We began the game, the only sound for the most part the clacking of stone chessmen against the hardwood board. Neither of us could be said an expert but we were well-matched. Today, though, Magus seemed distracted by something; at one point in the game, he sacrificed his queen and took only a knight in exchange. When I had set down the pieces, I sat back in my chair and looked up at the fennec. "Ye've something on yer mind."

Magus glanced up at my face, then leaned back in his chair and resumed studying the board. "Akkala could heal your back. Raven said as much, didn't she?"

I snorted and scowled. "Aye, an' she demanded a ransom for it. I've had my eye on the Lightbringers in the time since my little encounter. D'ye know I've yet t' see a so-called miracle that wasn't magic? Those so-called gods might wield a lot of power, but their abilities are limited just as ours are. It just happens that their limits are greater than ours. That's no cause for bowing and scraping. If the Lightbringers don't know it, they're fools. If they do, they're hypocrites. Either way, I want as little t' do with them as I can manage."

Magus' features changed not a whit as I spoke. He merely inclined his head the other way and continued to study the board. "And the Ecclesia?"

I shook my head and grimaced. "More o' the same. Why d'ye bring them up, save t' put me off my game?"

Rather than answer, he picked up one of his knights and captured one of my bishops. "How are Lurene's studies progressing?"

I took his knight with a pawn. "Inside of a year, she'll have the knowledge she needs. The practice, the training, that won't come in less than five but ye already knew that. Why d'ye ask?"

Magus studied the board in silence, then cocked his head to the side and advanced a rook. "What do you think of Rickkter? Check."

Confound the man! I grumbled under my breath, making a show of studying the board while I sought to untangle the common thread behind all of Magus' questions. He was at least a score of years my senior and ten times the mage to which I could aspire, and conversations with him could be damnedably difficult. However, I was determined to make sense of his questions and see where he was leading me.

I moved my king out of danger, eyes on the board. "I don't know him well enough as of yet. He came to the keep seeking an end for some ailment. Rumour says he was within an hour's search of a cure but the keep changed him prior t' needing it." I smirked, coughed and then winced at a twinge in my back.

The fennec leaned forward, adjusted his cloak and then brought down his remaining knight. Rather than say anything when he finished, though, his face turned to mine and he fixed me with a pointed gaze.

I advanced another pawn, staring at the chessboard but mind firmly on the thread of Magus' questions. What did Rickkter share with the Lightbringers and the Ecclesia? How did Lurene's training fit with that? The line of questions began with Magus inquiring about my back, then led to Raven and the Followers. That connection was obvious: the price for Akkala's healing was too high to pay, thus I lived without use of my legs. Lurene's studies... she was studying magic, obviously. And Rickkter had changed--

Like lightning, it struck me. Rickkter had changed, and in so doing became cured of the disease that had threatened his life. Perhaps by studying the spells that had ingrained themselves into the keep and all of its inhabitants, I too could find a cure for my damaged legs and back. I lifted my eyes to Magus' in an almost childlike gaze of amazement.

The fennec smiled and almost casually pushed his bishop across the length of the board, removing one of my pawns in the process. "Checkmate, I believe."

I heard the door rattle and then swing open. Lurene walked in carrying a tray on which were balanced two mugs and a plate of fruit and bread. She half-curtsied to Magus, who was rising from his seat. "Your ale, sir?" the young lady asked him.

The corners of the fennec's muzzle twisted upwards into his ever-present half-smile and he extended a paw towards the tray. His mug rose and floated gently into his reach, where he took it and raised it in a salute to her. "Many thanks." He then glanced at out the window and his smile deepened. "I should be going; thank you for the game."

I turned, still in a mild daze, and nodded absentmindedly to the fox. The chessmen marched themselves back into their box, which then lifted along with the wooden board to hover just behind Magus as he bowed to me, then again to Lurene, before making his way out of the room. The oaken door shut itself as he left.

Lurene set the tray of food down on the now-empty table and pulled a chair over next to mine. "Christopher? Is something the matter?" she quietly asked after a few bites of apple.

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs and smiled broadly for the first time in what felt like months. "Nay, lass, nothing at all. Eat up and then to bed wi' ye. We've a long day ahead of us tomorrow."




I woke to the sounds of movement and grunting coming from past the curtain that separated my bedroom from the remainder of the suite that Christopher and I shared. In the near darkness, I rose and stretched, pushing back the down-filled comforter and trying to shrug away some of the residual tiredness I felt, then walked to the thick cloth barrier, ignoring the chill of the stones beneath my feet. Pushing it aside, I was greeted by the sight of the bear already sitting up in bed and reaching for his chair.

I took a moment to watch silently while he shifted himself to the edge of the bed and turned so his thin legs hung over the side. He reached out with one paw and grasped the far armrest, pulled himself halfway into the seat, then took the other armrest underpaw and lifted himself the rest of the way into his chair, settling with a soft grunt. Watching him move like this brought my fingers to the pendant hanging from my neck and my thoughts to the fight six months ago in which he traded his legs for my freedom. I shrugged them out of my mind ere too long, though; what was done was done.

"Why are we up so early?" I asked around a yawn, steeping fully into the main chamber. I felt no need to change out of the light nightgown I wore; the air of the room was warm enough for comfort, and it was highly unlikely that Christopher would notice. I oft suspected that, were he not simply so accustomed to wearing a robe when going out, he would simply do away with any pretense of garments at all. The chair made getting in and out of them too time-consuming.

Rather than answer, though, he retrieved one of his robes from the hook near the door, dropped it into his lap, and then returned to his bed. As he lifted himself up and onto it, I hastened over to him, catching the robe as it slid to the floor. Once he was seated, I helped him into it, then held it tight as he returned to his chair, smoothing out wrinkles and making sure it wouldn't bunch uncomfortably beneath him, until he waved me away with a mock-growl. "You didn't answer my question," I commented over my shoulder, walking to the window to let in some of the dawn rays.

Christopher sighed deeply behind me and coughed as I returned to his bed, the morning sunlight backlighting me and casting a shadow across his body. "You certainly slept poorly last night," I continued, trying to make conversation.

My tutor shook his head to clear it and rubbed at his eyes. "My apologies, Lurene, if I kept ye awake. I had much on my mind last eve; ye might've guessed."

I folded my arms across my chest beneath my breasts and nodded. "I did, yes. Something Magus said to you?"

"Aye. I'd rather not say too much as of yet; if things don't work, then I'd rather darken the dreams of but one of us. An' if they do, then it'll be a grand surprise."

I studied the bear through one eye. He was an instructor and scholar by trade and desire; exactitude came easily to him and rarely did he hesitate to voice the minutiae of whatever subject was at hand. Wordy he was not, nor overly talkative, but where he had facts and figures, he could speak at length and enjoyed doing so. For him to intentionally refrain from revealing detail meant that the subject itself must be grave. I shrugged it off, though. Either he would reveal what he knew to me when it became important, or the matter would pass. In neither case would pressing him for further information gain me aught but a sore throat from talking. "Have we time to break fast before we begin?"

Christopher looked up from where he had fallen into a pensive stare. "Oh? Aye, certes. I'll think better on a full stomach, an' ye will as well." He turned in place, then wheeled past me to the door and opened it with a gesture. "Follow?"

I stepped behind the curtain and quickly traded my nightgown for something more substantial, a light offwhite cotton blouse and blue knee-length skirt. I then stepped into a pair of leather sandals as I returned from my room and walked up behind his chair. Michael had thoughtfully crafted a pair of handles on the rear of the seat for one to grasp while pushing or pulling. Christopher was heavy, but the wooden axle was well-sanded and probably treated with something by the alchemist to make it slippery. I took hold of the chair and pushed him down the hallway towards the front of the Keep proper and the Deaf Mule. "Anywhere you lead," I said quietly, but if Christopher heard, he didn't respond.

Donny was, as always, busy when we entered, though how he managed to be awake from before first light to well past last bell seemingly without tiring amazed me. The bull raised a forehoof in greeting, which I returned with a wave and a nod. Christopher sat quietly in comptemplation, a fact not lost on the barkeep. He glanced down at the bear, then turned his attention back to me and inclined his head in a quick bob.

"All's fine, Donny," I said in response to his unasked question. "He had a late night and has his mind on matters magical this morning." The bull nodded and turned his attention back to his kitchen while I pushed the bear up to a table, then sat opposite him. In a few moments, one of the servants brought over two plates loaded with thick hamsteak and porridge, as well as a mug of chilled water each. I thanked her and turned my attention to the food, as did Christopher, though his was more mumbled than spoken.

Only having a light meal the night before gave me an appetite this morning, and I ate heartily while the bear picked at his plate. A few times, I tried to engage him in conversation, but he would look up from his concentration and say a few words or merely nod at the sound of my voice, then drift back into his thoughts. After a few failed overtures, I left him to his focus, turning my own intent upon my meal. By the time I had finished, he was but halfway through his steak, his porridge had grown cold, and his water was warm.

I clucked my tongue, half in frustration, half in amusement. Normally he was the heavy eater while I sampled my way through half a plate, but today our roles seemed reversed. In the back of my mind, I worried what could have him so tied in knots that he barely saw the outside world, but I knew that pushing him would only drive him deeper into isolation. "Are you finished?"

I had to ask the question again before the bear turned his attention to me. "Hmm? Oh." His eyes went back to the plate and he shrugged. "Oh, aye. I'm sorry, lass. My mind's been turning about an idea."

I nodded, more to myself than to him, slightly relieved that he was still responding. "Can you tell me what it is? Mayhap I can help."

The bear smiled gently, his eyes showing the compassion and concern that so long ago caught my eye. "All in due time. Shall we return to our quarters?"




Once Lurene and I had returned to our room, she settled into a chair at the table, idly running one finger over the inkstain from the day before. "So, Christopher, would you tell me what Magus said to you that has you so befuddled?"

I started to reply, then closed my muzzle in thought. After a moment, I drew in a deep breath and tried again. "Close yer eyes. Ye remember how t' focus yer inner sight on the magics ye're working?"

"Of course," she said a bit indignantly, as if I were questioning her ability. She closed her eyes anyway. "On what do you want me to focus, though? I've cast nothing."

"Aye, but there're magics aplenty in the room. Focus, if ye can, on yerself. On the magic that changed ye."

Her eyes squinted in concentration, and then she gasped, mouth agape. "Ashes!"

"Aye." Without closing my eyes, I also focused on the spell encircling my ward. It appeared as a golden webwork surrounding her, a mesh of fine glowing wire, knotted and bunched in places, tied inextricably with the pattern of her own being. "Now, extend yer attention t' me, but keep focused on that spell."

Her head rose, eyes closed. She turned her face towards mine. "I can't... wait, yes. I can see it. It isn't the same, but it's similar. Cast by the same hand, but not the same spell. Similar working, different effect. There's some kind of interference..."

I focused on myself, trying to spot the distortion Lurene mentioned. The fine mesh that marked the Curse glowed a dull gold, not as bright but much the same as the one surrounding my ward. I closed my eyes and, with a bit of concentration, let my inner sight drift free. Almost instantly, the constant nagging pain that I felt while trapped within my living shell vanished as my perceptions detached themselves from it. I felt curiously at peace, my mind separate from my body. A thin silver streamer flowed outwards from the centre of my chest, connecting me to the body I normally wore. In my mind's eye, I began studying my physical form from head to toe.

"You just invoked something... I can see a trail leading away from you..." Lurene's voice sounded distant and flat, as if she were speaking from behind heavy curtains. I continued to survey my body, but after a moment, the interference that my ward mentioned was clearly visible. A black morass clung to my back, just above the tail, slick tendrils plunged here and there beneath the surface of my skin. Threads of ebony wove themselves into the fibre of my being. Even as I watched, one of the thin tentacles buried into my spine rippled and then tugged backwards as if attempting to free itself. A sharp pain ran up my back in response. Below the mass of darkness, the golden web was tarnished, weak and sputtering.

I extended a tendril of myself towards the blackness clinging to me. When I came in contact with it, a wave of aching numbness washed over me. I drew back as though burned. Carefully, I prodded at it again, and again I recoiled in empty pain as soon as I touched it. As if in unconsious response to my probing, the thing rippled and writhed, causing a hot rush of agony to course along my back, a sensation of which I was dimly aware.

I probed at an area near the black mess. When the tendril of my psyche came in contact with the glowing weavework that was the Curse of Nasoj, I felt a tingle in the back of my mind. Tugging at it gently or prodding it carefully caused the unnerving sensation to sharply increase. As I approached the darkness that indicated the damage done by Baron Grenier's sword some months ago, the sensation faded to a faint discomfort. It was as if the magic around the wound were somehow dampened, weakened by the cut.

Spreading my focus, I latched onto glowing fibres of the curse at a dozen points around the cut in my back. With every added contact, the buzzing in my mind grew until it threatened to drown out my thoughts. The silver line of my consciousness threading back to my body fluttered dimly. I was aware of Lurene's agitation at what she saw but had no energy left to focus on her at this moment. Fighting through the distraction, I poured my focus into the Curse, pulling against it and feeding it, seeking to use it to repair the damage that had been done to my back.

At the moment I exerted effort towards the Curse, the buzzing filling my mind grew to a rush of emptiness, threatening to return me to my unthinking state. The thread of my thoughts flickered, concentration torn to tatters in the face of the magics twisted through my body. I lifted, coaxed, cajoled, tugged and pulled at the golden mesh of the enchantment for as long as I could, but it was scant seconds at best before my focus faded and left me exhausted and heaving in my chair, mind completely numb.

After a few moments, I felt hands roughly tapping the sides of my muzzle. I pried open one eye to blearily study the shape I knew as my apprentice and ward. Her eyes were wide and damp. "Lurene?" My tongue felt heavy, thick.

"Oh!" She drew her hands back from my muzzle, then set about soothing the stinging in my cheeks with gentle strokes. "Forgive me; you looked as if you had slipped into a trance of some sort."

I shifted in my chair and looked out the window. The shadows cast by the furniture had grown short. "What time is it?"

Lurene glanced up, then out the window. "We've had two bells, but they haven't tolled high noon yet. I'd guess half of."

Two hours? I struggled to sit up, but a pervasive weariness sapped me. "An' I've been out since before first?"

"Aye." My ward nodded, looking concerned. "What were you doing? I saw a great deal of energy focused into the Curse in and about your back, and then your scar seemed to glow for a scant moment before your eyes darkened and you..." She made a shrugging wave with one hand. "You slipped away."

I closed my eyes and rested, trying to regain some of my strength, breathing slowly through my nose and focusing my attention on the movement of air in my lungs. My back, for the first time in close to half a year, was clear of pain, though I still could not move my legs. A dull ache seemed ready to spread through me, just as it did before, but for a few moments, I felt... well.

Lurene's voice broke my reverie. "Christopher?"

"Aye?" I asked without opening my eyes.

Silence. Then, quietly. "I was just checking."

At that, I did raise my head and look at her. She sat at the foot of my bed, eyes focused clearly on me. Her hands were folded in her lap, picking nervously at her skirt. I wheeled myself slowly to the windows and closed the shutters, casting the room into slanted shadows. Turning back to the young woman, I was struck for a moment at how much of her life she had given and how little she had asked in return, and just how much I had come to depend on her. From the day of my fight, she had helped Coe with my recovery. She accepted the position of my aide without comment, as if she had been born to it. While I might have read it as guilt or compensation, she carried none of the air of duty with which I would expect one in that position to have. She seemed truly to enjoy tending me, as much of a chore as I might be to tend. Not once did she scold or complain when I needed her, no matter the task. For a moment, I tried to envision my life at this point had Lurene never come into it. For all I might have seemingly lost since her arrival, I found the alternative wholly unsatisfactory. A year ago, I would have scoffed at the notion of anyone touching my life in the ways that she had, and yet now I found myself wishing I were a half-dozen years younger and in full health.

I pushed myself over in front of the bed and took her hands in my paws, enfolding them. In as quiet a voice as I could, I asked, "Checking for what, lass?"

She lifted one hand free and wiped at her eyes, looking away towards the shuttered window. "I was worried. You've never been in such a state before."

I shook my head. "No... twice before."

Lurene's eyes snapped to mine, full of concern. "Have you? When?"

My paws began gently caressing her hands, as if to keep themselves busy while I talked. "The first was at the Battle of Three Gates itself. The spell itself as worked by Nasoj reduces all who are affected with it t' unthinking animals. Magus, Posti and Kindle worked a counterspell as it was cast, but the curse has become part of the Keep's nature. For the span of a few moments, I was but a bear in thought as well as form, but thankfully 'twas only for a few moments. The second was a year ago. I was struck by a fetish of some sort that magnified the Curse, returning me t' my animal state. That time, it took the intervention of Akalla t' restore me. It left the mark ye see on my shoulder."

My ward reached out with her hand and gently brushed it over the spiral scar on my shoulder, feeling the raised hairless skin beneath her fingertips. "And then this time," she said softly.

"Aye," I nodded. "But this time, self-induced. An' I came out of it wi'out magical influence. I'll take that as a positive sign. Could ye check my back? I'd like t' see if there's been aught improvement."

"Improvement?" She looked puzzled, then brightened. "Oh! Is that what Magus said to you? A means of healing your back?"

I nodded again, a smile growing on my muzzle. "Aye. Using the very 'curse' itself. Stored within it is the semblance and the form of a bear, but a whole one. Phil, head of the writer's guild, was healed from severe burns by it, and Ricktter's ailment was cured by it. If I can find means to unlock that secret, I could very well restore my legs!"

Lurene's smile was all the encouragement I needed. I pulled myself up onto the bed and removed my robe, hauling it up gracelessly and tossing it aside. I then rolled onto my chest, exposing my back. I could feel the tips of her fingers trace the upper edge of the scar that crossed just above my tail. I kept imagining that I could feel feathertouches on the scar itself, but I knew that they were but fictions of my mind, weren't they?

Lurene clucked her tongue. "I can't see any change, I fear. There may be repair below the surface, though. Tell me if you can feel anything when I press."

I waited for an eternity, but no sensation came forth. I shook my head. "Naught."

Her hand pressed gently against my upper back. "'Tis alright. This was but the first time. Some treatments take time. How do you feel?"

I considered. "I ache again, but I don't think 'tis as bad as it was last eve. An' for a time after ye woke me, 'twas no pain at all, though I still couldn't move aught below my waist."

Lurene's fingers laced into the fur of my shoulder and gently smoothed it over. "A small sign of encouragement, but a sign naetheless."

"Aye. Now t' discern a means of doing more."




For seven days, I heard nothing more of the subject. With the end of Festival, Christopher had students again and he lost himself in his teaching. He seemed happy again, a fact in which I took comfort. The sharing of knowledge was his true passion, beyond either magic or alchemy. Since the incident, he had kept to our room almost exclusively, avoiding the subject of returning to his work. I extended every effort to convince him that the keep was in need of his services, but he feared becoming the object of others' pity. More, I think, he feared his inability to do his job.

When Festival arrived, though, his spirits lifted and together we went to witness the festivities. While several people gave us a wide berth as we walked, both Matthias and Rikkter went out of their way to approach and speak with him, a fact I know he found comforting. While both did ask about his wheelchair, neither made any move to pity him, a fact he later said he found reassuring. Then, almost as expected, when all of the excitement had faded and the Keep prepared to return to its daily life, Christopher found himself with a group of seven in need of schooling. When he came in that eve to tell me of his return to work, I could see the relief and the excitement in his eyes.

While he worked with the children, I spent my days acting out my duties as his ward. In the months that had passed with Christopher shut in his room, the air had taken on a decidedly musty odour, the rugs had not been beaten, and a thin layer of dust and shed fur covered the floor and much of the shelving. In all the time I had been with him before, while we were not covering my lessons, I was attending to him directly. Thus, I resolved to put our quarters into a more liveable state, and had for the past week made steady progress.

I was attending to the last of the floor when a most unexpected knock came at the door. I looked up from my sweeping and said, loudly enough to be heard through the heavy oak, "Come in!"

A slight hesitation came from the other side of the door, followed by a rich tenor, slightly muffled by the wood but still quite clear, asking, "Are you certain 'tis aright?"

"Certes."

The door glided open and in strode a wolfman of dark brown fur, wearing a red velvet cloak fastened at the neck with a silver brooch. I placed his visage quickly enough: Lord Thomas' resident Court Poet, Wanderer.

"Lord Wanderer," I curtsied quickly, still clutching the broom in one hand. "I apologize, but I could not come to the door until I was finished with that last corner."

The wolf chuckled. "No offense... Lurene, is't not? None at all. And, I pray you, call me Wand'rer, as others do. Pretty though it may be, the title of Court Poet has no peerage in't." His nostrils flared for a moment, and then he focused his attentions again on me. "Why, you ihaven been studying. I can see where your days inside have darken'd your hair."

I felt a rush of blood to my cheeks at his flattery but said nothing in response. After a moment, he continued. "Is your master about? I have some business to discuss with him."

"Not at the moment." Since Wanderer held no peerage, I felt comfortable in finishing my self-imposed task, sweeping the neat pile of dust onto one of Christopher's rugs to beat later. "He has students today, though neither of us think he will have much joy of them, this soon after the Festival."

The wolf's laugh deepened. "Nay, of course not. There is no festival long enough that a child's mind will have returned by the end of't." He quickly adopted the manner of a schoolchild. "Now let me think," he said in a slightly higher-pitched tone of voice, shaking slightly in a good imitation of the energy of youth. "Two plus two is a sword--I mean, four. And four plus four is gate--I mean, eight..."

Wanderer's hastily composed impression was still enough after a day of drudgery to bring a giggle to my lips, which caused him to smile and stop, giving a short half-bow.

Christopher's voice came from the doorway, giving Wanderer a start. "Too true, my friend. For every figure I showed, I had first to drive out jousts and festivities with a stick--and then they would creep back in as soon as I'd turned my back on 'em." The bear held out his paws to me, and quickly I set aside the broom and joined him. He slid one arm around my waist and hugged me quickly, then set me back on my feet as he wheeled into the room.

I glanced at Wanderer; his eyes were, as I feared, firmly fixed on the chair itself and on Christopher's too-thin legs. It only lasted for a moment, though, before the wolf raised his gaze to the bear's and strode forward. "Christopher," the wolf said with a slight smile as the two grasped arms. "At last I can see you--and, for once, the top of your head, I notice."

Court Poet or no, Wanderer's forwardness surprised me but Christopher only curled the corners of his muzzle in a smirk. "Somehow," he replied, taking his arm from the wolf to push himself further into the room, "I knew ye'd have a line for the occasion. I suppose I should be grateful that ye did not call yerself superior to me, as well ye could."

"Nay," Wanderer replied. "'Tis too simple a play of words." Then the wolf's voice became stiff, though his eyes flashed with humour. "You do realise, though, that ye've cost me a good half-dozen alliterations? I've had to discard 'bounding bear,' 'bouncing bear,' 'upward-going ursine' and 'stair-climbing scholar,' to say nothing of 'galloping grizzly.'"

Christopher smirked. "I am sorry to inconvenience you. The next time I break something, I shall try to start it with a 'b'."

At that, the wolf stiffened slightly. Had my eyes not been on him already, doubtless I would have missed it; it lasted only a second and was more in the total lack of motion than in any visible twitch, but the pause was still there. Then he came forward, bent double at the waist and wrapped his arms about Christopher's shoulders as best he could at such an angle. "It is good to see you again," he said after a long pause, his tail slowly swaying beneath his cloak.

Christopher held the embrace for a few moments more, then released. "Ye're here for more than my health, then," he said as he did so.

Wanderer's shoulders slumped. "There are moments," he said somewhat testily, "when I would just as soon be less transparent."

At that, the bear smiled slightly. "I doubt Lurene noticed it," he said easily. In truth, I had suspected something was amiss but hadn't known the reason for the wolf's visit. "Ye're well-trained at hiding yer feelings. Were I not so familiar with yer moods, I should never have known." He rolled further into the room, approaching the table, speaking over his shoulder as he did so. "Lurene, would ye fetch us some hot broth? I believe we've a long talk ahead of us."

"Aye." I nodded, rose from where I had taken a seat on Christopher's bed and walked to the hook-rack near the door where he kept his moneypouch. I slipped the leather thong from the wall and hung it around my neck, turned to Wanderer, curtsied again and then departed, pulling the door fast behind me.

My thoughts tumbled the length of my walk to the kitchens. Christopher had, on many occasions, described the Court Poet as one of his fastest friends at the Keep. Many a time, they would talk a candle down in the library or over food long grown cold in the Mule. To see someone that had once been so close to him treat him, even unconsciously, as an object of pity upset me greatly. Unbidden came the ardent hope that Christopher's research would soon bear fruit.

The unvoiced pun turned my thoughts to Christopher himself, and I felt a smile lighten my steps. From the day I arrived, the bear had given more of himself than I could ever have asked, and he did so with a graciousness and cheer that surprised me. Not once did he ever hold me to blame for what happened, even when I would berate myself for allowing it. He would rise at night and sit by my bedside when sleep refused to come, foregoing his own rest to ensure mine. He accepted me into his home, and into his life, never considering but that my place was with him. His acts were more than those of a tutor, or even a caring guardian, but--

I cut that thought off quickly; such ideas were unseemly to hold about one's guardian. And he was half again my age besides! And yet, the more I came back to that idea, the more appealing I found it. A vision of surrounding myself in his fur at night--my head against his shoulder, one of his arms around my waist--came to me and I shivered despite the early afternoon sun.

When I returned from the kitchen, two bowls of broth balanced easily on a tray, the two were chatting as old friends, at times breaking into laughter, seguing into serious discussion. It appeared as if the earlier tension had long been resolved, a fact for which I was pleased. Wanderer accepted his bowl with a nod to me, not pausing for breath. Christopher took the time to pull me close and press his muzzle to my cheek as he took his broth. His act reminded me of earlier thoughts and I found myself blushing, hoping that it would go unnoticed.

They spent the afternoon talking, the topic of their conversation dancing madly about, never resting on any one thing for long. I bided my time tidying the remainder of our quarters, then came and sat by Christopher's side to listen. Within a few minutes, he had wordlessly coaxed me both into his lap and into the conversation. Afternoon passed quickly into evening, and it was past sundown before the wolf reluctantly stood and bid us good eve, that he had courtly duties on the morrow.

I slipped from the chair and let Christopher show Wanderer to the door while I gathered up the bowls and tray to take down to Donny the next morning. I heard the door close and latch, but no sound of the chair turning or moving back towards the bed. I turned to see Christopher slumped in his chair, head bowed, paws limply resting on the armrests. For a moment I feared a relapse of the spell that had taken his humanity and called out in a slightly shaking voice, "Christopher?"

"Aye?" His answer was soft, worn, tired. He sounded old, then, far older than the score-and-five I knew him to be.

I set down the tray and walked to his side, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Is something the matter?"

He sighed, shook his head and then shrugged a moment later. "Wand'rer said something while ye were out that... it struck a nerve."

I gently worked the fingers of one hand into the fur of his shoulder, lacing them through the undercoat and untangling the dense fibres. "What? Did he try to take pity on you?"

He barked a short, painful laugh. "If only, lass! No, the wolf..." His voice trailed off there. "No matter," he added almost as an afterthought. "He voiced an idea, I showed him its problems, an' that was the end of it." The way Christopher spoke, though, I could tell he didn't believe it.

I gently tugged at his undercoat and then freed my fingers, drawing them through his fur, feeling the grain beneath my palm. Echoes of the vision I had earlier returned and made me shudder slightly. "I wish you'd tell me what he said," I sighed softly.

Christopher sighed. "The bard... offered to pay the price of my healing."

I felt my eyebrows rise, but I kept my voice neutral as possible, silently cursing the tremor I could not surpress. "Quite an offer, I'd say."

The bear laughed again, hollowly. "Aye. I pay my own debts, though." He turned his chair to face me and held out a paw to me, which I took. "I pay my own debts, Lurene," he said quietly, the hint of an unknown emotion in his voice. "I accepted responsibility for ye, an' I meant it. Not just the good but the bad an' all between. I--" He cut himself off there, but not before his voice broke. "I can't accept his offer, no matter how grand a gesture it may have been."

Something told me that that was not what he was about to say. I squeezed his paw comfortingly. "You'll find means of repairing your legs. I believe in you." With that, I bent and kissed his forehead.

His eyes lifted to mine, and a slight smile crossed his muzzle, though I could see a good deal more in the fire of his eyes. He pulled me to his side and hugged me, then released me and wheeled himself to bed. "Ye should sleep, lass, as should I. I've students on the morrow, and ye've neglected yer own studies for too long."

I walked to the drapery that separated our chambers, then turned back to look at him struggling into bed. "Is there aught with which I can help?" It wasn't the question I wanted to ask, but it was as close as I dare approach to it.

"Nay, thanks." Christopher strained himself into his bed, rolling to face away from me. "I'll be fine."

I retired to my own bed and lay awake, staring at the ceiling, failing to supress the thought of his arms around me.




I rose at first bell, but I could hardly claim to have woken; I spent the night listening to the sound of my own breathing, trying to still the jumble of thoughts in my mind. Between Wanderer's generous but misguided offer and Magus' indirect proddings, my inert legs felt like deadweights affixed to me. The memories of Lurene pressed against my chest, numb in my legs, not to mention elsewhere below my waist, when she sat in my lap only added to my frustrations.

With a weary growl, I pulled myself into a sitting position and strained myself into the chair. I glanced briefly in the direction of the rack near the door, but the idea of wrestling myself into a stifling garment that bunched and wrinkled and pulled uncomfortably at my fur brought a curl to my lip. I rolled to the corner and slipped the silver chain that held my monocle from the lowest hook and draped it about my neck. Then, on an impulse, I rolled myself as quietly as possible to the heavy drapery that separated my ward's chamber from mine.

Lurene lay curled on her side, one hand beneath her pillow, the other draped over the quilt that covered her. Her hair lay in a silver spill across her mattress, remarkably free of tangles unlike my own matted coat. I could see the thin webwork of scars that crossed her back where her covers had slipped down, a white spiderweb against pale skin. Her chest rose and fell slowly; the calm, easy breathing of restful sleep.

My mind went back to when I first watched her sleeping, a young boy of sixteen, shaking from nightmares that plagued his mind. With a cautious claw, I reached out and brushed a lock of her hair back from her face. She shifted a bit at the contact but continued to sleep. Hesitantly, I cupped her cheek with my paw, watching her. Still she dozed, but the faint hint of a smile graced her face.

My flews pulled back in approximation of a smile at her expression, but then the full measure of what I was thinking came to the fore of my mind and I jerked back as if scalded by her smooth skin. Hastily, I wheeled back and out of her chamber, feeling like a thief. Ye old fool, I cursed myself. Why should she want ye, broken an'... an'...

Crippled.

In all the time that I had been trapped in this mechanical monstrosity and all the days since the fateful sword strike that stole my legs, I had never once even used that word. Damaged, aye. Injured, wounded, even stricken; they were all accurate. But never that one. Never the one that admitted that some things were now truly beyond me. Things like voiding my own wastes without an attendant. Like making love.

I brought white-knuckled fists down on my numbed thighs, as if I could restore them by brute force. Nothing. Not so much as a twitch. Again I brought my paws down, and again they smacked into dead flesh. The sides of my paws stung from the impacts, but my legs felt nothing. Nothing. Tears welled up within at the hopelessness and helplessness of my situation, finally breaking through the dam of my resolve. I wept silently, gripping the armrests, droplets spilling from my face to wet my lap. I bit my lip until I could taste blood, refusing to cry out but incapable of stopping the flow from my eyes, flooding me with grief at all that I'd lost, all that I'd never know.

As soon as my tears steadied, I pushed myself to the shelves, grabbed one of my journals, threw it hastily into my lap, took up burin and inkwell, and wheeled as quickly as I could towards the common lab, burning within to find release from my prison of flesh.




I saw him as soon as I pushed open the door to the common lab. I had seen it before, in passing, but never in quite such a state of disarray. The alchemical apparatus, castoffs from Pascal's personal lab but still in good repair, stood stacked haphazardly on one table against the far wall. Several aging tomes lay scattered and open to various pages across every flat surface. A stack of closed books rested on the floor near one end. Dust swam in the air, almost as thick as in the library; the room smelled as if it could use a good airing. Christopher himself had his muzzle stuffed into one of his journals, his paw furiously scribbling. He seemed so enraptured in his work that I almost felt distressed at interrupting him. Almost.

I stepped into the laboratory and pushed the door shut with a muffled bang. At that, the bear looked up in haste, then almost as quickly turned it back to his book, though not before I saw his eyes fall to the floor, a telltale glance saying far more than he would confess in words.

"Eryn and Mirane came to our chambers after high sun."

Christopher merely grunted in response. I continued. "They asked as to the state of your health, and expressed hope that you would soon be fit to teach again."

Again, he merely sat there, though this time he said nothing at all. I put my hands on my hips and raised my voice. "Christopher, look at me." His paw continued moving but his ears drew back. He was listening, though he pretended to be lost in thought. I walked over, grabbed his fist and yanked the burin from it, throwing it across the room.

His head snapped up and followed the path of the marker until it clattered against the stone, then twisted his face to look at mine, a snarl on his muzzle. This close, this upset, his expression was frightening. "Aye, I felt not like instruction today. What of it?" He fairly spat the words at me, each one a slap in the face.

I held my ground and looked him in the eyes, forcing the pain of his words out of my mind. "They said the last they had seen of you was a week ago. The day Wanderer came round."

At the mention of the bard's name, Christopher's expression went from anger to a strange, furtive sulking. He turned his gaze away, refusing to meet my eyes. "I've been busy," he said sullenly.

"Aye, busy. So busy that you've been neglecting your students, the ones that you so eagerly anticipated a fortnight prior." I struggled to keep my own exasperation from my voice, with diminishing success. "Not just neglecting them, but deceiving them. Then you decieve me, telling me of their studies. Every night you've come in at well past evens and told me stories of their lessons. Then, today I find out that you've not seen them since a week prior! Christopher!" I cried harshly. "What has it that has you so tied in knots?"

He said nothing, drawing back in his chair and seeking to avoid looking at me. Memory came to me then. "It's your back, isn't it." It wasn't a question. Still the bear merely sat in his chair. "Magus gave you the idea of healing your back, and Wanderer gave you the impetus." My chain of thought ended there and I grasped for words to fill the gap, looking to the ceiling as if imploring it for help. "Christopher..." I lacked the means of saying what I felt.

When I looked back down, there were wet patches beneath the fur of his eyes, which were squeezed tightly shut. The muscles of one arm were taut and the knuckles of that paw were white with tension, gripping the armrest of his wheelchair as if to rip it free of its wooden base. After a moment of tangible silence, he spoke in a near-whisper, "'Twas not the bard."

At the tone of his voice, something within me caught. My heart skipped a beat, but I calmed myself with a deep breath. "Then whom?"

Christopher's whole body tensed when I asked my question, and for a moment I thought he would again remain silent, when he parted his muzzle and, in a deathly quiet voice, he said, "You."

My heart skipped a beat. I wasn't sure that I'd heard correctly. "What?" I asked in a whisper.

The bear nodded, a fresh spurt of tears in his eyes. "Aye, you," he cried with a tremulous voice. Then he inhaled slowly, wiped at his eyes ineffectually with the back of one paw, and said more calmly, "Ever since ye came t' the keep, ye've been a part of my life, one that recently I realised I wanted not t' lose." He hesitated, then continued. "I think I love ye, Lurene Grenier. Not as a father or a mentor or a guardian, though ye have all of my affection in those ways but... but perhaps more. I know it isn't right, wanting yer affections, but for a fortnight now I've dreamt of naught but ye at night. I know not if we could be happy as a couple, but I wish I could try. The morn after Wand'rer came by, I... I came t' yer room, an' I saw ye sleeping. I..." He stopped and hung his head. "I wanted ye, in that moment. Yet for all my desire, my body could not respond. It burned, inside. I knew I could never satisfy ye. I felt... ashamed."

Christopher's speech nearly stopped my heart. As if he were made of glass, I gingerly reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "Is.. that why you've been here? Trying to heal your back so that you could 'deserve' me?"

He sighed shakily. "I know, 'tis crazy."

I shook my head, feeling tears in my own eyes. "Nay," I said softly, cupping one hand under his chin. "You need do nothing to deserve me."

For the first time, he raised his eyes to mine. I smiled at him through my tears, and wordlessly he reached out and pulled me into his lap, burying his head in my shoulder. His paws went round my waist as I wrapped my arms about his neck and cried with him, feeling the tension of the last fortnight wash away.

Gradually, our tears stilled. I became aware of the smooth leathery pad of his paw rubbing over by back through the thin cotton blouse I had chosen. "I've lain awake at night these past seven nights and struggled not t' think of how it would feel, t' have ye in my arms." His voice was soft, undercut with a gentle rumble like distant thunder.

My cheeks flushed with my own memories. "I wish you had said something." I gently laced my fingers in the fur of the back of his neck and pulled back to study his face. His eyes were warm and inviting. A smile came to his muzzle, and he sat forward. I caught his mood and my heart began to beat faster, suddenly nervous and yet eager for what was about to happen. Our kiss was an acceptance of what had been, an invitation for what might come.

After a timeless instant, Christopher let his paws drop to the armrests of the chair, and I slipped from his lap and walked to the table, studying his journal entries for the past week. Much of the symbology and text was beyond me, though a few diagrams seemed simple enough for me to decipher. "Have you made any progress?"

Christopher cleared his throat. "Not much," he admitted. "But a fair amount, naetheless. I've at least found means of manipulating the curse without it threatening to overwhelm my mind." From there, he launched into a quick discourse of the advances he'd made in the last seven days. It wasn't a solution, but it was a path to one, at the end of which lay a hale and healthy back. "Much of my problem," he confessed, "is the sheer volume of power I would need to manipulate. I've not the strength of will t' command the force I'd require to heal so much at once, an' healing it partway might be worse than its current condition." He grimaced.

I studied the drawing, trying to conjure similar patterns in my mind. I found that I could, with relative ease. "Mayhap I could assist, then."

His expression changed to one of careful neutrality. "Mayhap. I've not show ye this much theory yet, though. Ye might find it more than ye can grasp easily."

I scoffed. "I can match my efforts to yours, lend you strength. The transference of power is an easy task; you showed me that early. Yours would be the task of shaping the force. I would merely be providing you with more reserves." I flashed a smile at him.

Christopher's eyes lit up. "Aye, indeed! Would ye?"

I nodded, still smiling, and he pushed himself upright in his chair. After a moment of forced relaxation, I closed my eyes and studied him with inner sight. From the golden webwork that suffused his form sprang forth a silver thread attached to a mistlike form that I knew was his conscious mind, drifting free to work from outside himself. As I watched, a dozen thin silver wires flew free from the sparkling fog and intwined themselves about the mesh surrounding the dark smear that ran the width of his back. After a moment of my own concentration, I sent a fine thread of my own to touch the silver mist. With effort, I could feel a drain, the force I controlled seeping into him to fuel his efforts. A faint tendril sprang from Christopher's mind and touched me coolly.

{Are ye ready, lass?} Christopher's voice sounded in my mind. He must have cast a spell of telepathy to aid in our communications.

{Aye, sir. Rea--} I had no time to finish my response. My inner eye was blinded by a wash of rose-coloured light and a wave of pure energy tore through me with the force of a stampede. Somewhere, I was aware of two screams and the snapping, twisting, rending sound of shorn metal and splintering wood, but the world within my focus was light, like the first rays of dawn burning into my mind. I felt heat, an incredible chilling heat that flooded me with liquid fire, and then all went numbingly black.




As soon as I returned to myself, I knew that something had gone horribly wrong. For a moment, I lay without moving, trying to take stock of my own body before opening my eyes to confirm. I lacked even the strength to survey myself from the outside, but I still possessed the presence of mind to determine what had happened. Out of pure vanity, I tried to wiggle my toes.

They moved.

I opened my eyes and looked down, lifting one leg. It responded, but its shape confused me at first, thick and squat, far too short. For a moment, I sat perplexed, until I realised that the Curse must have driven me back to the body of an animal. I had adopted the form willingly before on rare occasions, but it was unfamiliar to me and felt awkward. I tried to push the Curse aside, to return to some semblance of humanity, but even had I the will to do so, I doubted I could've enacted a change. What had once been a fine meshwork of cabling around me now appeared to be thick as rope netting used in siege or to secure cargo on the galleons Phil was so fond of describing. This was, for better or worse, my new form.

But oh, the sweet absense of pain!

I carefully rolled onto my stomach, feeling and hearing things grate and grind under me--the remnants of the chair that had been my salvation and my prison. After ensuring that I could feel all my limbs, I raised onto all fours and took a few tentative steps about the common lab. Feeling my paws, all four of them, against the cool stone, the gentle scrape of my pads against the ground... I wept silent tears of joy at the simplicity of motion under my own power.

Then I remembered Lurene.

I spun round to where she had been sitting and stared, dumbfounded. Where before had been an attractive young slip of a girl now sat a beautiful whelp of a she-wolf. Uniformly light-grey fur covered her form, almost the colour of her hair before. Her blouse was torn in places where the fabric had failed to accomodate her new shape. Her muzzle was long and thin, in familiar lupine style, the fur covering it short and dense. Her ears had drawn back and lay against her skull, no doubt pointed as I would expect. Behind her, visible below the seat of the chair, was her tail, full-bushed and lighlty swaying.

She sat up, slowly, lifting one paw to rub at her eyes. "Christopher?" she asked, her voice almost unchanged. Then she opened her eyes, those polished silver eyes. She looked down and gasped, lifting a paw to her muzzle in reflex, almost biting it by mistake. She cried out my name again, louder, a hint of shock coming into her voice.

I tried to speak to her, to tell her that all was fine, but all that came out of my muzzle was a curious chuffling growl that made her look in my direction. Again, I opened my muzzle but all I could do was grunt. Had the art that restored my body stolen my voice? I began to panic but forced myself to remain calm, breathing deeply and stilling my heart.

"Christopher, you're glowing!" Her outburst caught me by surprised and I looked down at myself. At first, I thought her inner sight was acting beyond her control, but when I let my eyes just begin to unfocus, it seemed that each hair in my pelt was limned with a faint dusty-pink aura. The mark on my shoulder was gone, but a new one had taken its place.

"What happened?" Lurene was, in her own way, struggling to overcome the shock of her change, but it seemed she was having as much trouble as I.

Setting aside hopes of speech for the nonce, I remembered the spell I had cast just before the accident. {Can ye hear me, lass,} I tried to think to her.

The wolfwoman jumped slightly in surprise but nodded. "Aye, I can hear you. Can you speak?"

I shook my head. {It would appear not. The form is complete, save for my mind. But I walk! I can walk again!} I lumbered hastily over to her chair and placed my head in her lap.

She stroked the fur of my head and rubbed the insides of my ears with her fingerpads, accidentally poking me once with a claw and making me wince. "Oh! Sorry, love. Christopher... how did this happen?" she asked in a bewildered half-whisper.

{Wanderer.} A snarl escaped my muzzle as I thought the bard's name.

"But you turned him down, did you not?"

I pulled my head from Lurene's lap and started for the door, reaching out with a weak tendril of force to open the door as I approached. The wolf hastened to my side. "Christopher? I thought you said you had turned down the bard's offer."

{I did.}

"Then how...?"

{That,} I said as we approached the Lightbringers' sanctuary, {is what we shall discover.}

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The scene in the main chamber of the sanctuary was almost exactly as I'd predicted. Raven hin'Elric, Lightbringer, was kneeling before an altar adorned with a cloth bearing the twinned cross of the order. Lit torches sat in sconces at regular intervals, providing a flickering light to the room. As soon as I stepped within the boundary of the chamber, I was nigh-accosted by a tawny bounding form, pressing himself into my flank.

Wand'rer.

{Can ye hear me, ye mangy rogue?} I tried to shape the words in his mind, but he merely sat back on his haunches and wagged his tail at me, tongue lolling, eyes empty of any human thought.

"Christopher." Raven stood and turned, gazing at me coolly, a thin smile on her muzzle. "I thought you would come."

While Lurene knelt and stroked the wolf's head, eliciting small whimpers of affection, I approached the dais. {What de ye think gives ye the right t' interfere in my life like this, Raven?} I made no effort to still the anger in my tone.

If anything, the cleric's smile only deepened. "I did nothing, Christopher of Ellcaran. The bard offered to pay the price of your healing. Akkala healed you. My role in this was merely that of messenger. Would you raise your voice at Kee for bearing bad tidings from Thomas?"

Her words stopped me cold and I sat back on my haunches. {Nay,} I thought. {But what gives HER the right t' meddle in my affairs, then?}

Raven laughed. "You might as well ask the sun not to rise, or the rains not to fall. She has her reasons, I'm sure."

I growled low in my throat. {That insufferable bard... I'll--}

"You'll what, sage? Look at him." As if by reflex, I turned towards the door. The bard was lying on his back, one paw twitching as Lurene scratched his stomach. "He's already paid for his actions. One doesn't oft lie to a goddess and live to tell of it. How long he'll be that way, none of us can say. He may never recover. What more can you do to him that has not already been done? How much would he even recall if you did?"

Again Raven's speech cut me. I seethed inside. I had been given back my health, albeit in a new body, through the deception of my closest friend and the meddling of a self-proclaimed diety. I wished to be angry, to lash out, and yet I had no target. The wolf had acted with more altruism than I thought possible in any living person, and Akalla was far beyond my means to rebuke. Wanderer had given me a gift I could never repay and might have lost his mind in the process, but he went against my will to give it. Torn between anger and pity, I sank to the stone floor, defeated.

Raven stepped down from the dais and laid a paw on my back where once I had a shoulder. "No lesson worth learning is easy, Christopher. Wanderer will understand this in time. I think you already do."

I nodded and rose, ambling back towards the two wolves, one once my ward, now my love, the other once my friend, now my pet. {Come, Lurene, Wand'rer,} I thought wearily, passing them on my way to the sanctuary. {Let us go home.}